Sep 2, 2021 - COVID

Ankeny School Board election heightens tension over mask mandates

Illustration of a school crossing sign wearing a mask.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The country's deep divide on mask requirements in schools has elevated an Ankeny school board election to a heated culture war.

What's happening: Tensions were already high at Ankeny School Board meetings this last school year. Some parents vehemently opposed the district's mask requirement and one even sued, alleging district officials retaliated against her child because she raised concerns about the policy.

  • But the candidacy of Sarah Barthole, an Ankeny mom who's known for opposing mask mandates and running in the Nov. 2 school board election, has generated unusual attention from Republicans and Democrats outside the Des Moines suburb.

Driving the news: Barthole, who worked with Gov. Kim Reynolds last year to reopen schools, was recently endorsed by the Republican governor.

Of note: Reynolds typically doesn't support candidates in local, non-partisan races.

What she's saying: Barthole said she wants to bring a "new voice" to the school board and give parents decision-making power, according to her campaign’s Facebook page.

  • She didn't respond to Axios' requests for comment.

Meanwhile, marginal hyper-conservative groups have jumped into the fray on their own accord, and encouraged members to send harassing messages to candidates that support masks in schools.

  • Amber Gustafson, a prominent Democratic Iowa activist, shared threats she received on social media after speaking out against Barthole.

Lori Lovstad, an incumbent school board member running for reelection, said this year is a complete 180 from when she first ran for office in 2017.

  • Lovstad, a health care worker who supports masks in schools, said she's dealt with local opposition to her views, including a protest that was held outside her home. But she said there's been "aggressive" messaging from groups outside the community because of her mask views.
  • "Having this national elevation of what should be a local decision is unfortunate from a public health standpoint and a community standpoint," Lovstad said.

Between the lines: Iowa schools aren't allowed to mandate masks because of state law.

  • But a lawsuit as well as the federal government's investigation into Iowa's mask mandate ban could turn the tables.

The big picture: Ankeny's upcoming school board election is just one of many races across the country where COVID mitigation will be on the ballot — whether explicitly or not.


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